Home / Articles / India’s Neutrality and Strategic Relations with China, Russia, and the West
India has long prided itself on its strategically independent or non-aligned foreign policy. But the 2022 Russian-Ukrainian War has put India’s approach to strategic independence under an international spotlight. Although Indian leaders have often stated that their country’s strategic independence does not bar New Delhi from leaning to one side or another, India’s tilt toward Russia during the war has been more pronounced than many in the West, particularly Europe and the United States, expected.
Western leaders hoped that India would have aligned itself with Ukraine and against Russia, especially given New Delhi’s growing involvement in the Quad grouping of major Indo-Pacific democratic countries in recent years. But India did not. Instead, it pursued an approach that seemed to favor Russia. Early in the war, India thrice abstained from United Nations resolutions that condemned Russian actions in Ukraine. It also sought to keep its trade with Russia flowing, even as the West strove to restrict Russian access to global markets. In mid-March, India allowed its refiners to buy Russian oil, despite Western efforts to curtail international purchases of it. And, at the same time, New Delhi and Moscow began to discuss how to avoid U.S. dollars as the transaction medium (i.e., “de-dollarization”) in their trade, which would enable Russia to more easily skirt the West’s economic sanctions against it.
No doubt, it would have been difficult for India to quickly cut its ties with Russia. As many have mentioned, India’s deep reliance on Russia for military equipment likely had a significant influence on New Delhi’s tilt toward Moscow. About 97 percent of India’s main battle tanks, 100 percent of its armored fighting vehicles, 67 percent of its submarines, 68 percent of the anti-ship cruise missiles aboard its guided-missile destroyers and frigates, and 97 percent of its fighter aircraft were acquired from Russia (or its predecessor, the Soviet Union). Even India’s most successful domestically manufactured anti-ship cruise missile, the BrahMos, was co-developed with Russia.
India’s reliance on Russia also manifested itself in the economic domain where India has had no problem building new commercial ties to Russia. As a country with few oil and natural gas resources of its own, India has traditionally imported over 80 percent of its oil and nearly half of its natural gas. Hence, as oil prices rose to over $100 per barrel in the wake of the Russo-Ukrainian War and the ensuing Western economic sanctions, India faced serious inflationary pressures. So, when Russia offered its oil for $20-35 per barrel in March 2022, India happily accepted it. In a single month, Indian refiners snapped up some 13 million barrels and committed to buying another 15 million barrels, almost twice as much as they acquired from Russia during all of 2021. India also expanded its purchases of Russian coking coal and sunflower oil during that month.
If India’s need for Russian arms and commodities was the principal reason for New Delhi’s tilt toward Moscow, then that would suggest that India is not strategically independent at all. Rather, it would suggest that India is strategically dependent on Russia. That is not to say that such dependence is illogical. Indeed, past Indian leaders chose alignment with the Soviet Union during most of the Cold War as a way to gain similar material benefits. Today’s Indian leaders may see Russia-leaning neutrality as the surest way to serve their country’s interests, including those dealing with China.
The China Factor
Among the interests that Indian leaders always have at the back of their minds is their country’s strategic rivalry with China. For over six decades, India and China have sought to gain the upper hand in Asia, not to mention on their disputed 3,488-kilometer Himalayan border. That struggle became a physical one in 2020 when Chinese and Indian troops brawled in the Galwan Valley, at the southeastern edge of Aksai Chin, a high plateau the size of Switzerland that has been occupied by China since the 1962 Sino-Indian War. An estimated 40 Chinese and 96 Indian soldiers were either killed or wounded in the brawl. With tensions still high on its border with China, India probably feels a greater need to maintain good relations with Russia should those tensions boil over into a full-scale conflict. Were that to occur, India would need ready access to Russian arms.
Moreover, Indian leaders might also feel that Russia could serve a useful role in such a conflict. Russia’s ties with China could help to restrain it or perhaps even mediate a resolution. Going further, Russia could use its leverage over China’s energy supplies to pressure Beijing or even mass its forces on its border with China to divert Chinese military strength away from India. While all that may sound like wishful thinking, Indian leaders could point to China’s sudden interest in de-escalation on their border after they leaned towards Russia.
Unfavored Western Suitors
Naturally, the West has tried to persuade India to abandon its Russia-leaning neutrality. That is what U.S. Deputy National Security Advisor Daleep Singh tried to do when he met India’s foreign minister in March 2022. Singh conveyed the message that Russia is unlikely to help India if there were a conflict between it and China. But even without that message, history should give India some cause for doubt. Despite the strong relationship between India and the Soviet Union in 1962, when war erupted along India’s border with China, Moscow failed to help India. (After all, Moscow also has the option to exercise its own strategic independence.) In the end, it was the United States that came to India’s aid.
However, many Indian leaders have harbored reservations about the West, particularly the United States. They often point to Washington’s decision to send the U.S. Navy’s Enterprise aircraft carrier battle group into the Bay of Bengal during the 1971 Indo-Pakistani War. Although the motivation for that decision is still debated, most Indians see it as having thwarted a decisive Indian victory over their arch-adversary, Pakistan, and proof of American unreliability. Meanwhile, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi likely has personal misgivings about Washington, given that it singled him out for sanction in 2005 over his role in the religious riots in Gujarat three years earlier.
More strategically, India does not want to be seen as a junior partner to the West. One way India can do so is to remind the West that it has an alternative ally: Russia. Additionally, India may believe that the West needs it more than it needs the West. Thus, from New Delhi’s perspective, India may be assured of some level of Western support, whichever way it leans. After all, during the George W. Bush administration, Washington was willing to spend a great deal of political capital on a controversial nuclear deal to accommodate one of New Delhi’s core interests, while asking little from India in return. It was only after tensions rose on the China-India border in the late 2010s that India took a more active role in the Quad. Now, with Europe and the United States pulling back from Russia (and to an extent from China), India must feel that the West needs it more than ever. Indeed, the West has refrained from drawing “red lines” or heavily pressuring India, despite what President Joe Biden called its “somewhat shaky” response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Thus far, New Delhi’s Russia-leaning neutrality has paid off from its vantage point. India has materially benefited from cheaper Russian oil, not to mention better access to coking coal, sunflower oil, and other commodities. It also banked goodwill with Putin’s Russia. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov made that clear when he expressed Moscow’s gratitude during a visit to New Delhi in March 2022. Meanwhile, India’s tilt toward Russia appeared to have cooled China’s ardor over their disputed border. And, the West, though irritated, has yet to impose any real consequences on India.
However, Ukraine’s experience battling Russia has clearly demonstrated what committed Western support can do. Surely, Ukraine could not have mounted such a successful resistance without the scale and speed of Western military aid and economic pressure on Russia. Should India find itself in a conflict with China, full-throated Western support could prove critical, especially if Russia fails to rise to the occasion. While India may be assured of some level of support from the West, will the West go the extra distance for India as it did for Ukraine? If the West does not, India’s Russia-leaning neutrality might begin to look less like strategic independence and more like strategic seclusion.
India’s Russia-leaning neutrality may have benefited the country in the short run, but it may not do so in the long run. That is not to say that India needs to align itself with the West. It does suggest that India would be wise not to tilt so heavily toward Russia and, instead, adhere more closely to the “middle path” that some of India’s leaders say that they endeavor to walk. But, as things currently stand, many in Western capitals, from Berlin to Washington, feel that India is straying further away from that middle path in what may amount to a gamble. Continuing to lean towards Russia, while keeping the West at arm’s length, might be a good way for India to find itself without enough support from either side in a pinch.
Update: The article, originally published as “Indian Foreign Policy and the Russian-Ukrainian War,” was updated on April 27. The post also includes a new subtitle for the section, “Unfavored Western Suitors.”
The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a non-partisan organization that seeks to publish well-argued, policy-oriented articles on American foreign policy and national security priorities.